From toilet paper to best sellers: The joys and risks of publishing prison literature

From toilet paper to best sellers: The joys and risks of publishing prison literature

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Imagine you are a publisher. You receive a manuscript from a prospective author that shows great promise. You quickly move ahead and decide to publish it. Before long, the book rolls off the mill and, as soon as the copies hit the market, your sales team reports very good sales, daily. Any time the phone rings it delivers good news — more and more sales.

Then one day the same phone rings. You receive the call. Hello, you say. No one answers. You listen and wait, as you can hear voices in the background. Hello, you repeat; there is no answer. You end the call. The phone rings again. You receive it and the cycle of ominous silence continues.

One evening, you leave the office and get into your car, as usual, to drive home. On your way, you realise you are being trailed by unknown people. Later, strange people assail you. You struggle with them as they try to kidnap you. The only thing that saves you is the reverse gear of the vehicle which snaps. You narrowly escape with your life, bleeding from the deep cuts on your body.

Your assailants call later to ask if you have learnt a lesson. As if fate has conspired against you, your books are removed from the official government reading list and, out of nowhere, there are constant threats of litigation by members of the public who feel libelled by your author. You live in perpetual fear, wondering in whose crosshairs you are. And now you wonder if it was worth accepting that manuscript.

There are many reasons a publisher accepts a manuscript from a prospective author. If it is creative work, the publisher will look at the development of characters, plot, the language used vis-à-vis the target audience, and stylistics and literary techniques, among other considerations.


My Life in Crime, which was then called Lost in Crime, arrived at East African Educational Publishers Ltd (EAEP) on toilet paper. Prison authorities, then, provided prisoners with very hard toilet paper, but, unknown to them, this made for good writing material for those prisoners who wanted to write.

This manuscript, therefore, had to be typed out. From the outset, this manuscript ticked all the boxes, and even the typesetter loved it. Anyone who came in contact with it noted how well the author had developed his characters and how easily this gripping story flowed due to the well-developed plot.

The author had given so much detail that the editorial team was impressed. Would he be a one-novel wonder? Clearly, this manuscript had to be published. The only question was, which category it would fit, and that is how EAEP developed the Spear Books category, a bridge between the Pathfinders — novellas read at Class 8, Form 1 and 2, as class readers, after approval by KICD — and the Peak Library, novels at the set book level.

All was set, but there was an elephant in the room — the author, John Kiriamiti, was then a hardcore criminal, serving his sentence at G.K. Naivasha Maximum Security Prison. Regardless, the editorial team decided to go ahead and publish the book.

This decision to publish My Life in Crime opened a floodgate of manuscripts of all sorts from criminals, each of whom had a story to tell. To them, EAEP was a partner who ‘understood’ them. After all, EAEP had embraced one of their own! A few diamonds were found in the rough and they were published, but many were equally rejected.

On the other hand, public perception came into play with the recruitment of these criminal authors. Indeed, some of the partners may have had a decision to make — do we still work with this entity that is ‘sympathetic’ of criminals or not? The only redeeming factor was the quality of the work by these new authors. For instance, My Life in Crime was a bestseller. The reading public embraced it the way drought-hit soil sucks in rainwater. It was on the lips of everyone and the copies were exchanged rapidly. When My Life with a Criminal came, the readers were eagerly waiting.

Now, publishing a criminal who is retelling and regretting his past is fair enough. However, it is a whole different ball game when you publish a former detainee or an author who is considered an enemy of the State. As a publisher and a citizen, you work within a set of rules — obeying the law. Indeed, you also expect the law to protect you and your work.

However, things quickly change when you are perceived to be rubbing the power of the day the wrong way — something you may not even be aware of. It is a risky business.

As any publisher will tell you, we work with authors who eventually become our friends. In fact, we source our authors from among our teachers, or people we have worked with before.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o, once considered an enemy of the State, was Henry Chakava’s teacher at the University of Nairobi. Chakava wrote his dissertation on Ngugi’s A Grain of Wheat, on the subject of guilt and betrayal. Also, Chakava had worked closely with Ngugi on a manuscript that had the working titles Wrestling with God and Wrestlers with God, which became Petals of Blood and was published in 1977. This was part of his early job engagement at Heinemann Educational Books. The two, therefore, had a long-established friendship by the time Ngugi started facing his hell before, during and after detention.

Sadly, as Ngugi devoted more work outside the classroom to literature, he was perceived as being against the government of the day. His publisher was not spared. Chakava’s phones were tapped and his movements constantly monitored. Strange people called him, even when he stopped at a social joint on his way home — they knew everything about him. They called him names and threatened to harm his family.

Publishing prison or ‘anti-establishment’ literature exposes the publisher and the author to risk. It creates a powerful, invisible enemy that is a constant nightmare in the lives of these two players. Chakava states in Publishing in Africa: One Man’s Perspective: “There have been many threats, direct and indirect, that I or my company has suffered because of the association with Ngugi.” He goes further to observe that Ngugi himself has suffered on a much larger scale.

On the other hand, the authors, who in most cases end up in exile, see the publisher as a shoulder to lean on. They turn to the publisher for help as they face their predicament. Chakava, in a chapter in Ngugi: Reflections on his Life of Writing, recalls that when the University of Nairobi refused to hire Ngugi when he came out of detention, he, Ngugi, sought help from Heinemann Educational Publishers. Here, he was given a desk, a telephone and space to receive his visitors. While in Britain, and on the way to exile, Chakava documents that Ngugi would request him to visit his family (Ngugi’s) and to give them money out of his royalty.

Finally, publishing prison literature tests friendships. Ngugi walked out of Kamiti Maximum Security Prison in 1978, with two manuscripts written on toilet paper: Ngaahika Ndeenda (I will Marry When I want) and Caaitani Mutharaba-ini (Devil on the Cross).

These two were high-voltage hard-hitting texts, and even Ngugi himself was not sure his publisher, Chakava, would have the courage to publish them. Knowing what publishing them would mean, Ngugi told Chakava not to take it as a test of their friendship.

Pulling the veil of publishing aside, this situation indeed tested their friendship. It was not a surprise that Chakava’s bosses in London discreetly suggested that he should dump the whole project!

In conclusion, therefore, publishing prison literature has many challenges and a publisher who receives manuscripts ‘written on toilet paper’ becomes Hamlet who has to make a decision — to be or not to be.

The writer is the publishing director at East African Educational Publishers.


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