Storymoja Publishers officially withdrew the Young Adult title Blood Ties by South African writer Zimkhitha Mlanzeli from the Kenyan market on November 1, 2019.
Storymoja Publishers for many who follow the African literary scene is famous for the Storymoja Festival which has hosted some of the finest writers from across the continent. The company doesn’t just organised a famous on-again-off-again literary festival; it has “Publisher” in its title after all. Started with a handful of staff in 2008 by founder Muthoni Garland, it now has a battalion of staff supplying over three hundred titles to the Kenya market and beyond.
The company recently signed the Young Adult title Blood Ties by South African writer Zimkhitha Mlanzeli. The book which was written in 2014 has the following blurb;
Pholisa is coming to make a fresh start in Cape Town with her older brother Masi. Her old friend Lelethu is there to welcome her to Harmony High, where she meets the lovely Lazola, and romance is in the air. But at home Masi is becoming aggressive and moody, and Pholisa is worried about what he is doing late at night. When Masi spirals out of control, all of their lives are shattered, and Pholisa is forced to make one of the most difficult choices of her life, and face just how strong blood ties really are.
The book which on the title proclaimed “teenagers will love this book” was introduced as part of the company’s Storymoja Life Series which gives life skills to young adults. It was dispatched to all good bookshops and started circulating in the Kenyan literary ecosystem to the delight of all involved. This was until tweets emerged showing one of the pages using the word “fuck.” It would quickly spiral with people asking how Kenyan authorities would dare approve anything with such an abhorrent word in a “Christian nation.” The book was withdrawn from the shelves of Kenya’s biggest book store chain Text Book Centre, disowned by the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development and Storymoja had to backtrack. You can read all about the controversy in this excellent piece By Nerea Otieno in Okay Africa.
On Friday, November 1, Storymoja Publishers called a press conference in their Nairobi offices and they announced they were officially withdrawing the book from the Kenyan market. Here are some notes that we got from this event with comments from company executives Muthoni Garland (Founder), Dawn Makena (Managing Director), and Monity Odera (Managing Editor).
Why did Storymoja publish a book that contains vulgar language?
Dawn Makena: “Blood Ties contains one profane word repeated three times in one paragraph. It is the only book that Storymoja has published that has profane language. Our Managing Editor will explain why that word was left in the book.”
Monity Odera: “Like others in the industry, Storymoja accepts manuscripts sent in by writers for consideration and also sources manuscripts of books published in other countries. The life skills books we acquired from South Africa, including Blood Ties, were reviewed by local secondary school teachers and editors and were selected because they addressed key issues that teenagers in Kenya face including negative peer pressure, gambling, alcohol and drug addiction, sexual harassment and rape, poverty etc. The manuscripts then went through substantive editing that took almost two years of back and forth exchanges between assigned editors and writers. The writer of Blood Ties pressed hard for the editors to make the creative judgement to allow the profane word in one book so as to depict the scene more realistically. In future, we will not allow any profane word to appear in any of our Storymoja titles as our society is more conservative than that of South Africa.”
How did Blood Ties end up in a booklist for Standard 6 students?
Dawn Makena: “The book list was not generated by Storymoja. Our catalogue clearly shows that the book was designed for teenage readers. Publishers do not determine what goes into a booklist and do not have the data to send them to parents. Publishers send sales people to schools to market their books. The teachers review the catalogue and select those books they perceive best meet the needs of their students. The sales person leaves behind copies of the books for the teachers to review. Schools then select books from different publishers to include in booklists they send to parents. We always encourage parents to read or peruse the books their children read.”
Does Storymoja accept accountability for the mistake?
Muthoni Garland: “I wish to state that the book was published under my watch, when I was the leader of Storymoja. I encouraged editors to work closely with writers to make responsible creative judgements to ensure the books attract and engage teenagers. Unfortunately the decision made to include the profane word in one book was the wrong one, even though the motivation was a good one. I apologise with all my heart and deeply regret the offence it has caused our readers, parents and partners. We have learned from the pain and embarrassment so please rest assured that we will not make this mistake ever happen again.”
What steps has Storymoja taken to rectify the mistake?
Storymoja publicly recalled the book and offered to exchange it for one of similar value. “No matter the cost, we are determined to do our best to remedy the mistake,” Makena said, “Anyone can bring us the book for exchange. We will also publish a separate catalogue for primary school teachers to reference in future. For our secondary school books, we have constituted a wider panel of teachers from different parts of the country to review all the books in the life series again and we intend to submit them for KICD vetting and approval.”
What is the future for Storymoja?
Makena concluded the press conference with a call to action. “Storymoja is here for many years to come! We will continue to publish books that inform, empower and arm students to face the future with confidence. We urge our employees and supporters to continue spreading the love of reading far and wide.”