Nobel Prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah was mobbed on the second day of the publishers conference that precedes this week’s Sharjah International Book Fair. Everyone wanted to have their picture taken with the quietly spoken author who is here on his first visit to the Gulf.
He attended the session on decolonisation, and the growing influence of African authors, at which he heard fellow writer Lola Shoneyin from Nigeria attack western publishers. “I’m also a publisher in Nigeria. When an African book comes out in the west, it is one of the most difficult things to buy rights for an African edition. UK publishers are the most guilty ones.
“Western publishers feel it is ethical to withhold the rights from African publishers. The power dynamics need looking at. They will have to give up these rights eventually. We don’t want it to be like the Benin Bronzes when we have to come and get them.”
Among those who rushed to have their picture taken with Gurnah was Kenyan writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor who also had the best line of the day. Addressing Gurnah from the stage she said: “Thank you for decolonising the Nobel” which was met with applause.
Meanwhile, out amid the jungle of rights tables, Julie Attril who heads up rights for UK publisher John Wiley, was singing the SIBF’s praises. “This is my eleventh time here. They’ve done a fantastic job. I come because I do solid business here, and I see people that I would never see otherwise. I sell everything from our biggest titles, like the marketing titles by Philip Kotlger, to an obscure 1990s book on social sciences which I’ve just sold to a Syrian publisher. There’s nowhere else quite like it.”