PublisHer: Louise Umutoni

Emma House
News - Interviews Friday, 9th July 2021

Continuing her series of interviews with women in the PublisHers network, Emma House talks to Louise Umutoni, founder of Rwanda's Huza Press


Louise Umutoni is the founder of Huza Press, a Rwandan-based publishing press devoted to supporting African literary craftsmanship. Huza Press has published writers such as Yolande Mukagasana, Billy Kahora and many emerging writers from across the continent. Its Radio Book Rwanda collection published in both print and audio was showcased by the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s annual dance festival as part of its inaugural component on literature. Huza Press also run the only prize for fiction in Rwanda and partnered with the Goethe-Institut last year to establish the KigaliLit series, a platform that brings together African authors to discuss their work.

Louise started her career as a journalist and worked on titles such as Ottawa Citizen in Canada, New Times Rwanda and Enterprise Magazine. She also worked in development and in the legal field before returning to Rwanda to create the country’s first women’s writing group, Andika Ma and eventually establishing Huza Press.

She is passionate about knowledge creation and dissemination in Africa. She has written academically on National Liberation Movements in Africa and women’s political inclusion. Her work was selected for the Winihin-Jemide grant at the University of Oxford where she completed an MSc in African Studies. She was also awarded an Aegis Trust research grant to complete her work on the role of political settlements on women’s political inclusion. She is currently working on a book on the role of women in National Liberation Movements in Rwanda, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya.

 

1.    What was your pathway into the publishing industry?

My journey is very similar to that of many other people in the literary space on the African continent. I grew up an avid reader, alongside my brother who was also an avid reader. A real defining moment for me was at the age of 7 when I stole The Pelican Brief by John Grisham from my brother and started reading it. Even though I probably didn’t really understand the actual story, from that moment I was gripped by reading. I was very conscious however that I only had access to stories which were based on Western experiences, and I really didn’t see myself in any of the stories. I realised I wanted to see my own context in the books I was reading. 

At 12 years old, I stumbled across the book The Concubine by Elechi Amadi, which opened the door to a world that I didn’t know existed despite growing up in Kampala, the thriving capital city of Uganda. People being described were a similar colour, with things I could relate to. I immediately got drawn to African literature and then went crazy to hunt down any African book I could find and got through as many as I could get my hands on. There was a love for, and relationship with African Literature and books from a young age.

I wrote my first book at 14, then realising that it wasn’t how it works – simply writing the book didn’t mean it was published. My love affair with stories and narratives continued as I went to university in Canada.  This was an important part of my identity and I saw gaps in our literature scene quite clearly. I started engaging with the politics of knowledge and access to publishing spaces for African writers and understanding why I couldn’t get my hands on the literature I wanted and was especially drawn to finding solutions. After finishing university, I moved back from Canada to Rwanda to see if I could address some of the challenges. What initially started as some thoughts of sensitisation around reading culture quickly evolved into a publishing business.

I began by awareness raising – holding writers workshops for women, running book clubs etc – bringing people together around books, but ended up speaking to people who were veterans in the sector, including Kate Wallis who was in Rwanda – and is now one of the directors in Huza Press. I also connected with Ellah Wakatama who made me promise I wouldn’t set the publishing company up as a not-for-profit, that it must be a business (which I have maintained). Another organisation I reached out to was the African Writers Trust –  which supported my first training in the publishing space. So many people, especially women were very welcoming and supportive of my endeavours and really encouraged me to set up Huza in 2015 in Kigali and run the first ever prize for fiction in Kigali.

2.    Who or what inspired you to enter the publishing industry?

I didn’t think I was going to start a publishing industry – I wanted to build capacity for writers and to bring people together, provide mentorships and literally throw everything at the problems and find solutions. The publishing company idea was one of the solutions, and even the prize was established to tackle a problem. There are also not many people to look to on the African continent for inspiration given that most of the publishing is in the educational textbook space. I’ve since been able to reach into a fantastic network of people such as Bibi Yusuf-Bakara (of Cassava Republic), Goretti Kyomuhendo (founder and current director of the African Writers Trust), Lola Shoneyin (of the Ake literature festival), a whole range of people doing fantastic work in the  African literature space. I also took inspiration from the Kwani Trust in Kenya which is doing some interesting activities.

3.    Tell us about Huza Press?

Huza means ‘bringing together’- and stories bring us together, shared narratives that encourage us to empathise with others, and to see ourselves in stories. This year we have 4 titles, we usually publish 2 titles a year but delayed a couple because of the Covid pandemic. We try to limit the number of titles we publish each year, given we are not a big team and we really want to give each title as much attention as possible. I feel strongly that there is not enough knowledge that is being produced on the African continent being given a platform.

We absolutely need to increase our global contribution of knowledge as a continent from its very low base of 2% - which is even more shocking given the size of the continent and the stories and knowledge we have. I feel we must contribute to the African literary canon that would otherwise go ignored. To do this we must tackle the gatekeeping issue, and show that we do have people writing, who have interesting stories and are putting forward their own experiences, but have not had the support, or access to opportunities to publish their work. I also want my son and daughter to have access to these works, narratives and knowledge when they want to learn about Rwanda or the Continent – rather than having to work really hard to get hands on an African book and see themselves in books.

So far, we have published a range of genres, including biography, memoir, fiction. We are thinking about children’s books and poetry and have plans to publish an upcoming anthology that would launch a poetry imprint of Huza.

4.    You have also established a fiction prize and the KigaliLit series of literature events – can you tell us what motivated you to launch these?

I set up the prize to get a sense of what people were interested in writing, as not much writing was coming out of Rwanda (apart from books about the genocide). What surprised me was how people wanted to write about stories that everyone else in the world was writing about, e.g. sci-fi, love, pain – it was inspiring. I knew as well that writers could also benefit from mentorship, so we offered 10 shortlisted writers to be connected to established African writers who worked with them on stories for about a month to give them a sense of what a good story looks like. This support would then elevate the quality of work we were receiving as prize submissions. It was a long-term plan to inspire and develop writers and go on their journey with them.

When we could actually meet in the same place- the live events – KigaliLit was a partnership with the Goethe Institute. We ran them for about 2 years, with the ambition to bring African writers into Rwanda and introduce them to audiences and vice versa.  We were successful in attracting some very interesting writers. This also inspired Rwandan writers who were producing work as well, to expand their horizons. We also partnered with the Ubumuntu Festival (in Kigali every July) to add a literature component to the arts festival that was traditionally focused around theatre by getting some performance poets involved. We hope to get back into this when we are allowed and see the excitement and reward from the connections that are made through live events.

5.    What has been the ongoing impact of your literary mentorships in your community and in Rwanda?

We have seen so much change, incrementally across the years and starting from a low base, but it has amounted to some great rewards. In previous years, Rwanda never engaged with the Caine Prize for African Writing, but we managed to place stories into the anthology and persuaded them to run their workshop in Rwanda in 2017. Getting Rwanda into this space for African literature was an important milestone. For our mentorships, we put out calls for stories and initially received 40 submissions. Now we are into the hundreds with the quality having improved to such a huge level - Caine Prize worthy.

6.    Describe a defining moment of your career.

As I said, we are a small team, but we punch above our weight!  We won the Brittle Paper publisher of the year last year which was exciting as we struggled during the pandemic. We are still a young company and although we got so much incredible support at the beginning, there is much more to do – lots of things that need to happen in our market and I feel the real defining moment is yet to come.

7.    What is the publishing industry like in Rwanda?

Books are hard come by here. We have many logistical issues and difficulties in getting titles from one place to another. The market is strongly driven by the schoolbook/textbook publishing sector which sits at the core of the industry. We have quite a few publishers and having been asked to judge a publishing book prize, I was surprised by how many there are. The books published currently are based on what school curriculum needs, but few other books are being published.

8.    What is the landscape like for women in publishing in Rwanda?

I’d say it is no different to other sectors. Publishing here is an industry that is more inclusive of women – like publishing around the world. Businesses are owned by women in the space. It’s a small industry and not lucrative, and I guess more women tend to go into those spaces.

9.    What advice would you give to other women in publishing?

The advice I’d give is not specifically for women, but for anyone looking to start a publishing house. Collaboration is key, and people in our industry want to collaborate. We have collaborated with many people and organisations now, including Jalada and African Writers Trust. All of us are small and all trying to address similar challenges, though collaboration. It hasn’t all been smooth sailing and there have been challenges, and it’s been important for us to speak about collaboration and articulate the difficulties, what has worked and not worked and been honest about the lessons we have learnt.

10.    What next for you and for Huza Press?

We continue to see challenges around the reading culture here in Rwanda, which is improving from what has been the lowest level in the region. Listening to the radio has always been much more popular than reading. It is very different to Uganda (where I grew up) which has a completely different reading culture. People are always reading something there, and you’d often see people sitting on the streets reading. In Rwanda, going to the shop to buy a newspaper, they could be weeks old, and magazines were years old – it’s such a different culture. We are however now starting to see movement and a push to get people reading. Bookshops are also now opening. We are keen to use our events especially, to help contribute to improving the local reading culture.

We also need to get more books and titles out there. We have a new writer’s residency coming up aimed at fostering collaboration between different writers. When we can, we are going to continue running events, workshops, and mentorships. We are seeing an African literary renaissance and we want to contribute as much as possible to the expanding African literary canon.

The industry also needs to come together to try to resolve some of the distribution challenges and see books being able to travel further, both across the Continent, but beyond into the UK and USA. There isn’t much money in the creative space however, and there are many issues outside the scope of our influence such as high transport costs and taxes, and border controls. We can produce books that are cost-effective, but when we try to distribute them more widely, they become expensive because of these issues and this then makes them inaccessible.