A new literary agency aims to expand contemporary African fiction for young people through individual mentoring and global partnerships. Launched earlier this year by two longtime children’s publishing professionals, Deborah Ahenkorah in Ghana and Sarah Odedina in the U.K., Accord Literary represents Africa-based writers of middle-grade and YA fiction with a goal of reaching young readers around the world.
Ahenkorah and Odedina are using open submission calls to encourage participation by writers from across the African continent. Once they select their clients, the team conducts writing workshops and online seminars to offer further support.
“One of the things that I think is forgotten is that people learn to be good writers,” Odedina said. “They work and rework ideas and polish their skills. In the U.K. and U.S., there are many opportunities for aspiring writers to gain knowledge and guidance from professionals and other writers through workshops and talks. There are perhaps fewer opportunities for sharing skills and knowledge for writers of books for young readers working in Africa.”
Both founders draw on deep, complementary backgrounds for this new venture. Ahenkorah was honored last month for her influential work as the publisher of African Bureau Stories, focused on African writers for children, and she also established the Golden Baobab Prize, a literary award granted to children’s book authors and illustrators from Africa. Odedina, a former publishing director at Bloomsbury Children’s Books who oversaw the publication of the Harry Potter books in the U.K., is now editor-at-large for Pushkin Press.
“I grew up in Ghana reading children’s books from all over the world,” Ahenkorah said. “I didn’t see myself or my culture represented in those books. We would love to see a greater diversity of stories reflecting a wider African experience.”
Odedina also shares both a personal and professional motivation for creating Accord. “I am married to a Nigerian, the artist Abe Odedina. When our daughters were little, and we were traveling back and forth to Nigeria, I was frustrated by the lack of stories that portrayed people who were like them, who lived in cities on the continent and had aspirations and interests and the usual concerns of young people growing up. I was depressed that there were so few books to read by African writers, and that the books [that were] available represented an African continent that dwelt on stereotypes and clichés or were retellings of folktales, as if the best cultural heritage was from the deep past.”
Odedina added, “We both want to ensure that there is a more realistic range of books published about life in Africa as lived by Africans, rather than books that imagine what that life is like. It is important for children to be able to read stories about Africa that break with the stereotype of the continent as a place in need of ‘aid,’ a place where countries are riven with corruption, and the people are passive and portrayed through a white gaze. African writers will tell stories that are true to their experience and will allow young readers to realize what a rich, vibrant, exciting place the continent is.”
Growing Opportunities for African Authors
Accord Literary has opened in a year of increased global attention on African publishers. This past June, the International Publishers Association held its second “Africa Rising” summit in Nairobi, Kenya, where Ahenkorah spoke about Accord’s work and mission. And other recent initiatives share the agency’s mission to help more African writers connect with publishers. Enchanted Lion, a U.S.-based children’s publishing company, has recently hired an editor-at-large, Nadine France Martine Pinede, to acquire stories from Francophone Africa and the African diaspora. And the Sarraounia Prize, a biennial literary award for young adult literature by writers in Africa, was established in 2019 by Senegalese publisher Sulaiman Adebowale and Tidjani Alou, an author and educator based in Niamey, Niger. The first winners will be announced early in the new year.
Both Ahenkorah and Odedina agree that the timing seems right for their collaborative venture. “In the past few years, there has been an increased demand for more culturally diverse books, and publishers are responding to that demand,” Ahenkorah said. “The growing community of the African diaspora has become a real market and cultural influence, and more people are interested in contemporary content from Africa. The significant and mainstream success of African authors, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Esi Edugyan, and Yaa Gyasi, shows the viability of African stories. There is no reason why the success realized in publishing adult African fiction cannot be realized in children’s books.”
“Publishers are aware of the lack of diversity on their lists and want to do something about it,” Odedina said, “but it can be difficult for them to break with their traditional methods of finding authors, which is primarily through agents. What Accord will do is reach out directly to authors who don’t have agents, authors who are working on ideas and need help to shape them. We will position Accord Literary to be a support, and also, through our extensive worldwide contacts, a means of getting the books by those authors published around the world.”
The team is realistic as they face challenges in current children’s publishing models in Africa. “There is such diversity in publishing across the continent,” Ahenkorah said. “But one common occurrence is that the children’s book market in most African countries is stifled by a hyper focus on the production of textbooks. When this happens, book sales for publishers are largely determined by the school curricula, and this does not always encourage a heavy investment in children’s fiction. There isn’t an extensive public library network, and a lot of the public libraries rely on donated books from abroad. Most bookshops sell more stationery than locally produced books. Some countries, like South Africa, have more infrastructure around their trade publishing, and therefore the publishing there is more diverse in its output.”
Odedina said, though, that both she and Ahenkorah are “excited by the level of innovation” that they’re seeing African publishers employ, and she mentioned recent meetings with a publisher in Ghana who had an arrangement to sell his books through supermarkets, and also a Ghanaian woman who had opened her own libraries and was taking books directly into schools.
“One of the values with which we formed Accord is partnership; it influenced our choice of name for the agency,” Ahenkorah said. “We will be partnering and working in accord with publishers across Africa to get our books out, and we want to empower the industries locally and rely on the expertise and distribution in various countries to reach large audiences.”
Ahenkorah and Odedina are enthusiastically at work on Accord’s first six projects, which include middle-grade novels and a graphic novel for young adults. According to Odedina, their clients’ voices “range from literary historical to commercial, and each has a special and unique story to tell that will introduce readers to the vast variety of storytelling styles and narratives coming from African writers.”
Of course, the team is hoping that the books created by authors represented by Accord Literary will allow children in African countries to recognize their contemporary, daily lives. But they are also hoping that the books reach young readers across the globe.
“I would really love to help children of African descent living around the world to connect with the continent,” Odedina said. “And we also hope to introduce young readers who do not have links with Africa to a wonderful, complex, and interesting place that is populated by people to whom they can relate.”