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Weaver Press – How one small, brave Zimbabwean publisher made a difference

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With the news that it is to halt operations it’s a fitting time to take stock of Weaver Press in Zimbabwe.

The publishing house started small in 1998 and remained small, co-managed by its two full time employees, the husband and wife team of Murray McCartney and Irene Staunton. At the same time as Weaver Press was celebrating its 25th anniversary, McCartney revealed that it would effectively be closing.

For the couple, publishing was a labour of love. The company’s office in the backyard of their house in suburban Harare was a way to keep overheads as low as possible. Their considerable productivity was powered by an ambition to publish good literature, despite adverse economic and political conditions.

research and study Zimbabwe’s book history and independent publishing culture. For the country’s creative writers, who found a platform in Weaver Press, its folding is a real loss. In Zimbabwe, the bigger transnational publishing conglomerates – like Longman and College Press – concentrated their businesses on the profitable textbook market, leaving small independent publishers like Weaver Press to carry the burden of publishing new imaginative work.

In its 25 years, especially through its short story anthologies, Weaver Press provided a platform that helped establish a new generation of Zimbabwean writers. Their work became a mainstay of critical responses to authoritarianism in the country and many would go on to establish international reputations. Weaver Press continued to build literary networks and readers even in a culture of censorship.

Founding years

Weaver Press was founded almost two decades into independence, as the wheels were starting to fall off the Zanu-PF wagon. In 1998, relative stability under Robert Mugabe’s ruling party was unravelling. War veterans had demanded big gratuities that would contribute to crashing an economy that had been the envy of the region. The book sector faltered, leading to bookshops closing and the price of paper and production rising. Violence was unleashed on Zanu-PF’s political opponents, farm invasions were initiated and the economy imploded.

The name Weaver Press was inspired by the small indigenous weaver birds known for their intricately woven nests. The mission: to build a community of writers and readers.

A man with greying hair and beard stands at a microphone talking, a row of people seated behind him.

Murray McCartney talking at the 25th anniversary of Weaver Press. David Brazier/Weaver Press

I was the first of many interns trained and mentored at Weaver Press. There was no school or college that offered publishing studies in Zimbabwe. The only way to learn was on-the-job training. Before the office building was completed, my work station was the verandah. It was an ideal place to learn. In a small publishing house, the divisions of who does what are not very rigid; things have to get done and if you are the only pair of hands available, then you sometimes get to do them.

For Staunton, in particular, Weaver Press is the culmination of a remarkable publishing career that started in the 1970s at John Calder Publishing in London, where she worked with authors such as the acclaimed Irish writer Samuel Beckett. When she returned to Zimbabwe after independence, she co-founded Baobab Books with the South African anti-apartheid activist Hugh Lewin, who was in exile in Zimbabwe.

A woman sits at a desk, focused on reading from a computer screen in front of her, rows of books lining the walls behind her.

Irene Staunton in the Weaver office. Murray McCartney/Weaver Press

Baobab had an incredible roster of writers: Charles Mungoshi, Chenjerai Hove, Alexander Kanengoni, Yvonne Vera, Charles Samupindi, Shimmer Chinodya and Chirikure Chirikure among them. This generation used the imagination to document the traumas of the liberation struggle, which they had witnessed or participated in.

At the new start-up Weaver Press, though, Staunton worked with a new generation of writers who emerged at the turn of the millennium, including Brian ChikwavaNoViolet BulawayoLawrence HobaChristopher MlalaziValerie Tagwira and Tendai Huchu. Their work offered vivid snapshots of Mugabe’s authoritarian state and they would go on to become award-winning and influential writers.

Short stories

Weaver Press significantly influenced the contours of Zimbabwean fiction, especially through short stories. They published more than a dozen short story anthologies featuring more than 50 writers. Zimbabwe has had no culture of literary magazines, so by anthologising its authors, Weaver Press assumed the midwife role that such publications play by identifying new talent – while also encouraging the older writers to keep writing.

They explained:

We are motivated by the idea that fiction is an invaluable form of truth-telling allowing for many points of view and shades of perspective.

Commitment

In a country with a low book-buying culture due to a hyper-inflationary economy, Weaver Press has always functioned more as a non-profit organisation than a commercial publishing company. They offset their publishing costs through freelance editing and typesetting. A commitment to good literature was what propelled their work.

In the early years the Weaver Press fiction programme was developed through a grant from Dutch non-governmental organisation Hivos. Despite developing an impressive catalogue of English fiction, Weaver Press did not venture into African language publishing or other precarious genres such as poetry.

A woman in a dress of African print fabric sits in a theatre with red seats, looking at the camera with a slight smile.

Celebrated Zimbabwean novelist NoViolet Bulawayo published with Weaver Press. David Levenson/Getty Images

The small press was not very popular with government, which accused it of being “die-hard Rhodesians” and “regime change agents” with a “hidden agenda of mass producing books that de-campaign(ed)” Mugabe’s government. Yet Weaver Press contributed tirelessly to Zimbabwe’s literary culture, despite a climate of censorship and threats of violence against writers.

Lessons for the future

Weaver Press has been the most high profile independent press in Zimbabwe and its halting operations marks the end of an era. Not so long ago another small press, amaBooks, also closed shop. For a country that was once a powerhouse for publishing in Africa, Zimbabwe’s fortunes have vastly diminished in recent years.

Yet in some ways, it may be an opportune time for new publishing models to emerge in Zimbabwe. In the digital era books can no longer be at the centre of publishing. It’s imperative to experiment across different mediums like the internet, podcasts and television, especially in markets like Zimbabwe where the population is very young. The art of reading has changed.

But literary culture – reading and writing – is a significant part of how societies make sense of, reproduce and transform themselves. In this, Weaver Press more than played its role.

Tinashe Mushakavanhu is a junior research fellow at the University of Oxford.